The Death Toll
We think of burning people as one of the worse humanitarian offenses possible, and a horrifying barbarian violation of human rights, but there were days when this method of execution was chosen exactly for its capacity to inflict a high degree of pain, and it was applied mostly to women. Unfortunately we witness an increase of incidents in several areas of the planet, many target women and some are related to alleged witchcraft.
The horror of witch hunting disturbed me when I was a little girl. I didn’t grow up celebrating Halloween, so I was unaware of the more playful iconography that nowadays accompanies this crucial day balanced between the Equinox and the Solstice. I always felt an inexplicable current of kinship mixed with fear. I was not so much scared of the alleged dangers a witch could pose rather I became a little queasy at the thought of being burnt myself. There was a message buried somewhere in my consciousness, a warning, a not so veiled threat: stay on the accepted path or this could happen to you. Underneath there might have been another undercurrent whispering of dangers related to being female.
There is so much confusion around the term “witch”. It has been used to mean so many different things. It is a word exploited politically, reclaimed with pride in modern times, attached to archetypal energies, vilified, and glorified.
I believe that both the attraction to the mystery that surrounds “witches” and the fear of being targeted as “one of them” is in our DNA. As I grew older I encountered this fear in my own dreams and then in clients’ dreams, sadly I still find it confirmed in the news.
I found a report from 2014, an indigenous woman was burned alive in Paraguay, an area where this behavior has historically been quite unusual, after being accused of witchcraft. Localprosecutors charged nine men in the village with first-degree murder. If you search the news yourself you will find many more such horrors.
A report by the UN Refugee Agency estimates that thousands of people worldwide are accused of being witches every year. The UN says they are often abused, cast out of their families and communities and sometimes killed.
It might be of interest to read one the United Nations High Commission for Refugees’ Reports addressing alleged witchcraft and its persecution.
When I was a teenager I researched the history of witch hunting in the library. Useless to say it appalled me. The emerging political, historical, social, and religious implications were staggering.
In Those Times
It is not possible to ascertain the exact number of executions in Europe and in the Americas, and modern scholars reach different conclusions. The worse years of witch hunting stretch between 1500 and 1660. So much happened in those crucial decades. For example Descartes died in 1650; his brilliant logical mind is still influencing contemporary philosophy, but he was a man who refused to trust his own senses. He laid the foundation of modern rationalism and is well known for his motto “Cogito ergo sum” (I think therefore I exist). His philosophy heralded the Age of Enlightenment (1715-1789) which values eventually opened the way to the industrial revolution, where technological advancement and progress were (and in so many ways still are) the ultimate goals regardless of its price.
What’s wrong with this, and how do witches fit in here? Answering is not simple. I have been trying to understand the persecution of women, or I should say what they stood for at that time, more clearly. I will keep writing about the many questions that emerge around the dynamics of domination versus collaboration, and reflect on how this persecution is still perpetrated in too many areas of our planet.
Interesting historical “coincidences”
For now I will only say that women were repositories of pragmatic medical knowledge due to an unbroken relationship with nature that must have felt threatening to the ways religious and political systems were reorganizing themselves after the locally focalized medieval times. While the first official “university” was founded in Bologna (my Alma Mater) in 1088, the European spreading of such concentrated places of learning moved very slowly for the following 400 hundred years. In the beginning of the 1500s their still small number (29) doubled, and 18 more were added by 1625. These apparently unrelated events make me wonder about the emotional and psychological environment of those years. It is even harder to estimate the impact of these developments and persecutions on the psyche of the general population, and the associated loss of organic wisdom, experience, commitment to the preservation of nature, and the death of a world view more akin to what nowadays is referred to as an “indigenous perspective” regarding our place in – and relationship to nature.
I greatly value knowledge, and I value wisdom even more. I greatly value education and I hold in great esteem the institutions of higher learning. But I cannot be blind to some distortions that have brought us to the environmental crisis and the social imbalances we are experiencing today. I would never want to see access to education and information shrink, but I think that from a philosophical standpoint we are approaching a time when integration of different perspectives is necessary to our survival.
Some say that in these 160 most active years, Europe saw between 50,000 and 80,000 suspected witches executed. About 80% of those killed were women. Execution rates varied greatly by country, from a high of about 26,000 in Germany (which had the higher concentration of Universities, followed by Italy) to about 10,000 in France, 1,000 in England, and only four in Ireland. The lower death tolls in England and Ireland seems to be owed in part to those countries’ better procedural safeguards for defendants. The estimated population of Germany between the 1500 and the 1600 is a little bit over 10 millions (I compiled this information from several online sites, click here and textbooks, you may click here as well ).
According to Wikipedia, common methods of execution for those convicted were hanging, drowning and burning. Burning was often favored, particularly in Europe, as it was considered a more painful way to die. Prosecutors in the American colonies generally preferred hanging in cases of witchcraft (you may visit Wikipedia for more statistical details). On Wikipedia you can also find a list of names and dates.
I shared elsewhere the dream I had regarding bringing healing to the psychological and physical disruption created in human psyche by this efficient persecution – especially in women’s psyche. This dream has renewed old questions and brought new ones. I will continue to write about this topic in the weeks that follow. If you are interested in participating in the Healing Ritual: Burn No More, which I plan to host every year close to Halloween, please check the calendar, write to my assistant or contact me for questions.
Any information you may wish to share, books, thoughts, questions, websites or publications are most welcome.